Monday, June 20, 2016

Church-state separation group says pulpit politicking continues, in defiance of LBJ's 1954 law

Despite a 1954 law that blocks all non-profit entities with 501(c)(3) status from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office, the practice continues unabated, Simon Brown reports for Church & State, the monthly magazine of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The 2008 election, when preachers were known to discourage congregations from voting for Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, "was something of a watershed year in the relationship between the Internal Revenue Service, houses of worship and politics," Brown writes. It was part of a "coordinated effort by pastors to defy the IRS."

Starting in 2008, "A group of far-right pastors teamed up with a prominent Religious Right legal organization, Alliance Defending Freedom, to ignore federal law against campaign intervention by houses of worship," Brown reports. ADF launched “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” which "openly encourages Christian clergy to endorse or oppose candidates for office. ADF claims that 2,032 pastors have taken part in it since the beginning. Critics, including Americans United, have expressed skepticism over that number, however, noting that some participating pastors may think they are defying the IRS simply by speaking about political issues and some of them never actually made a formal endorsement."

The IRS has done little to determine whether or not “Pulpit Freedom Sunday" is a violation of the law, Brown writes. "In 2009, the IRS offered a proposal that included new protocol for investigating houses of worship. But that submission has yet to be finalized; and even so, critics have said the agency still failed to select the 'appropriate' official to initiate church-tax inquiries." The Political Activities Referral Committee, created by the IRS, "determined 'as of June 23, 2014, 99 churches merit a high priority examination' for partisan political activity undertaken during the years 2010-13.' . . . It appeared that the IRS took no action to punish those pastors who openly defied the law."

Brown reports that "a series of legal and political setbacks" has left unclear what the IRS plans to do. Around 2008, "just when it appeared the IRS was really flexing its muscle on this matter, a church under investigation successfully appealed an agency audit—exposing a procedural snafu that may have caused enforcement activity to halt."

ADF says it is fighting for religious freedom and a repeal of the 1954 law, sponsored by Lyndon Johnson, then a senator from Texas and later president.

Brown reports, "A 2012 survey taken by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 66 percent of respondents don’t want houses of worship to endorse or oppose candidates for public office. Another poll taken that year revealed that pastors themselves are highly against partisan activity as well." (Read more)

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